One of the most common questions asked of writers is how did you write your book? I’m not sure how other writers address this question, but the honest answer is, well, I sit at my computer and hope the words appear on the screen. That’s a bit snarky, largely because the question is misdirected. I suspect that what is being asked is how did you construct the story that your book tells?
That is an interesting question.
Before I attempt an answer, let me offer a few definitions:
A pantser is someone who writes without an outline or even notes. Basically, the writing is a stream of consciousness exercise that starts with an idea. The author may have a vague ending in mind or be surprised by what he or she produces.
A plotter is someone who produces detailed notes of the story before the writing even begins. Some outlines are very granular while others break down the story into chapters and the chapters into scenes. My favorite books on the subject are Structuring Your Novel and Outlining Your Novel both by K.M. Weiland, who also writes an amazing blog that can be visited by clicking her name.
An outline not only serves as roadmap for writing but can function as a “proof of concept” before time is invested in writing a book. The downside of the detailed outline is that a lot time can be invested in the outline itself. I have dozens of outlines that have collapsed like a house of cards in a windstorm.
Writing is hard enough without having to deal with a hundred-page outline that goes nowhere.
Enter the Snowflake Method.
When I hear the word snowflake, the first image that comes to mind is something akin to the photograph I took in September in Colorado when 18 inches of snow fell over Labor Day. Lots of snowflakes. Very pretty to watch, but shoveling? Not so much.
The term snowflake in the context of this post is neither the white, cold kind nor the socially stunted human kind but rather a shorthand reference to a method created by Randy Ingermanson that is described in detail in How to Write a Novel Using the Snowflake Method. (Again, click the book title for more information).
The end product of the Snowflake Method is what might be thought of as a type of outline (perhaps better described as blueprint) that uses an iterative technique to produce it.
ASIDE: The name comes from a process of drawing a snowflake using triangles. You can watch an animation of this process created by António Miguel de Campos.
The value of plotting is that that the writer is compelled to think about his or her story. The problem with thinking about the story is that the writer can slip into left-brain thinking where The value of plotting is that that the writer is compelled to think about his or her story. The problem with thinking about the story is that the writer can slip into left-brain thinking where critical choices are made. (This is the area of the brain where your mother’s voice and the voice of your piano teacher reside.)
Creativity, on the other hand, is largely a right-brain function. The Snowflake Method tries to minimize left-brain thinking by breaking down the outlining process into ten steps that theoretically should be performed in the right hemisphere.
The first three are:
Step 1) Take an hour and write a one-sentence summary of your novel. Something like this: “A rogue physicist travels back in time to kill the apostle Paul.”
Step 2) Take another hour and expand that sentence to a full paragraph describing the story setup, major disasters, and ending of the novel.
Step 3) The above gives you a high-level view of your novel. Now you need something similar for the storylines of each of your characters. Characters are the most important part of any novel, and the time you invest in designing them up front will pay off ten-fold when you start writing.
For each of your major characters, take an hour and write a one-page summary sheet that tells:
• The character’s name
• A one-sentence summary of the character’s storyline
• The character’s motivation (what does he/she want abstractly?)
• The character’s goal (what does he/she want concretely?)
• The character’s conflict (what prevents him/her from reaching this goal?)
• The character’s epiphany (what will he/she learn, how will he/she change?
• A one-paragraph summary of the character’s storyline
The remaining steps involving the expansion of sentences into paragraphs, paragraphs into pages and so on to produce the blueprint of the story.
In writing my latest book, Throwaways, I started with an outline only to find that my story lacked focus. Something was missing. That’s when I learned about the Snowflake Method. I was skeptical at first but found the stepped approach appealing.
The first two steps went well. I found that identifying a character’s motivation, goal and conflict produced some interesting insights. I could feel the snowflake developing just like Mr. Ingermanson described.
But then I took a detour. I was working a character’s storyline when my head filled with questions I might ask him. To my surprise I heard him answer. The answers led to more questions and the story from his perspective emerged. I interviewed other characters. Curiously, and happily, not all of the characters reported events the same way.
Some approaches to character design use a questionnaire to gather profile information—favorite color, ice cream preference, favorite book. But the questions produce a static profile. The interview produces a dynamic interaction between the writer and the character. If the writer can stay right-brain focused, the interview may lead anywhere, even providing new insights into where the story is going.
MALE CHARACTER : Of course I didn’t kill her. I loved her.
WRITER: You loved her? Had you even met before you shot her?
MALE CHARACTER: I watched her, how she talked to people, how she squeezed their hands…I didn’t shoot her!”
WRITER: Were you stalking her?
MALE CHARACTER: You have a sick mind. She was my daughter!
That was unexpected. What does the WRITER do now?
The cool thing is that if WRITER is smart, he/she continues to interview the other characters. For example:
FEMALE CHARACTER: He told you that she was his daughter, right?
WRITER: That’s what he said.
FEMALE CHARACTER: (Sigh). I let him believe that, but just between you and me, it isn’t actually true. You know, sometimes things happen and well, the truth is…complicated. Confession may be good for the soul, but can get you killed, if you know what I mean.
WRITER: Do you think he killed her?
FEMALE CHARACTER: Are you stupid or just uninformed? The girl led a double life. She’s Mother Teresa coexisting with the Son of Sam. Nah. He didn’t kill her. You might want to check out the commune where she used to live and learn a bit more about the Disciples of Truth.
This dynamic exchange informs the writer that his victim led a double life, that her parentage is uncertain, that the reason for her death is shrouded in uncertainty. Even in this limited example, the writer is offered multiple opportunities to create conflict. Conflict produces questions. Questions properly posed (and mostly answered) create reader interest.
For me, the character interview is the key to finding the story in the one-sentence summary that drives the Snowflake Method. Additionally, a character’s voice may emerge—cadence, word choices, and other personality ques—that make the actors in the story unique and interesting.
Once the interviews were done, I returned to the ten steps and put together a blueprint of my book organized into chapters and major scenes. Writing was still challenging but without the fear that the effort would fail.
The reviews of Throwaways on Amazon have been extremely positive. Perhaps the most satisfying comments refer to the characters:
The characters have personality so much so that the reader gets to know them and root for them. Texas Read, October 26,2020.
Great characters and a great setting for a mystery adventure. Red Wolf, October 24, 2020
A lot of authors set out to create likable, believable characters, but few succeed to the extent that Elliott Light has with Jake Savage. William Hansmann, October 23, 2020
I have written a one sentence summary of a second Jake Savage book. The players are in the wings ready to tell me their stories. I, for one, can’t wait to speak with them.
Learn more about Throwaways by clicking here.